Monday, May 17, 2010
Central Park's Minton-Tiled Arcade
When Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted laid out Central Park in 1858, they envisioned a grand focal point, an "open air hall of reception." That centerpiece took shape as the three-part complex of the Upper and Lower Bethesda Terrace and the beautiful Bethesda Fountain. Access to the fountain from below the Upper Terrace was made possible by the Arcade, a pedestrian passageway under the 72nd Street Drive.
What could have been a more-or-less mundane stone passage became, instead, one of the great architectural artworks in New York City. Vaux's chief assistant, Jacob Wrey Mould who was responsible for many of the artistic elements in the Park, designed a tiled floor and ceiling of encaustic tiles -- created using a process by which colored clay rather than colored surface glazes form the designs.
Minton and Company in Stokes-on-Trent, England was chosen as manufacturer. Each of the 15,876 ceiling tiles was handmade and, when received in the States in 1869, was carefully hung in an elaborate gilded iron framework.
The Minton floor, unfortunately, lasted only until 1912 when it was replaced by quarry tile.
The Terrace had been waterproofed in the 1880s; however the process did not anticipate the wear-and-tear from above by anything heavier than clopping horse hooves and iron-rimmed carriage wheels, nor for modern paving and repaving. By the 1960s water was seriously seeping through the stonework. The 1970s, a dark time for Central Park landmarks, saw The Arcade used as a hang out for drug dealers and vandals.
In the early 1980s the 50-ton ceiling was showing obvious damage. It was totally dismantled in 1984 and the Minton tiles were crated away for two decades.
"Restoration," explained James Reed, project director of Central Park Conservancy, "was beyond the Park's budget at the time."
When the City of New York was asked to donate $1 million to the project, the Office of Management and Budget refused. Mayor Ed Koch quickly overturned their decision. In characteristic Koch fashion he declared, "For us not to spend a million to restore the tiles, you'd have to be a Philistine."
Twenty years later the fund raising was finally complete. The Conservancy spent $7 million to restore the Arcade. Seven conservation technicians hand-cleaned and repaired approximately 14,000 tiles. Four months had been spent in simply numbering and cataloguing them.
Restoration also included a complete rebuilding of the metal framework, comprehensive waterproofing, reconstruction of the decorative brick arches, and the installation of a cast iron and bullet-glass skylight, similar to the original.